Mifune (Denmark/Sweden, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's refreshing to see a movie in which there are no special effects, no camera tricks, and no incidental music to strum on a viewer's emotional strings. These are some (but certainly not all) of the tenets of Dogma 95, the much-ballyhooed "cinematic vow of chastity" taken by four Danish directors, one of whom, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, is responsible for this film. In fact, Mifune is the third motion picture to receive the Dogma 95 seal of approval, following Tomas Vinterberg's The Celebration and Lars Von Trier's The Idiots (which has not been distributed in the United States). And, while I have an affinity for certain kinds of Hollywood overproduction, something like Mifune makes for a welcome contrast to the usual multiplex bombast.

Mifune takes its title from the name of the legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, who starred in many of Akira Kurosowa's films, including the classic The Seven Samurai. Mifune died around the time that this movie, then simply called Dogma 3, was going into production. Director Kragh-Jacobson decided that he wanted to find a way to honor Mifune's memory, and so was born a storyline in which one character dresses up as a Samurai named "Mifune" in order to please his mentally retarded brother. That's how a Danish film came to be named after a Japanese icon.

Mifune opens with a wedding. Kresten (Anders W. Berthelsen) is marrying Claire (Sofie Gråbøl), a domineering woman who happens to be the daughter of Kresten's boss. The two haven't been united in marital bliss for long when Kresten receives a phone call: his father has died and he has to return home to care for his brother, Rud (Jesper Asholt), and to prepare the funeral. All of this comes as a great surprise to Claire, who didn't realize that her husband had any surviving family. She offers to accompany him, but Kresten doesn't want her meeting Rud (whom he views as an embarrassment) or seeing the seedy, run-down farm where he grew up and from which he fled. When he arrives, the place is in a mess, as is his brother. Looking for someone to help clean up as well as to babysit Rud, Kresten places a newspaper ad for a housekeeper. The only one who responds is Liva (Iben Hjejle), a young, attractive blond who is running from demons of her own. She is a prostitute who is fed up with selling her body just to keep her ungrateful brother, Bjarke (Emil Tarding), in boarding school.

In many ways, Mifune is about family, and about how, no matter how hard one tries, it's ultimately impossible to hide - the truth, as they say, will find you out. There are times when Mifune's storyline stretches a little too far into the realm of contrivance, but, the strength of many of the film's individual moments makes up for any overall weaknesses. This movie is built upon well-defined characters, evolving relationships, offbeat comedy, and solid acting. There is also an emotional core, but one that never threatens to become mawkish. Manipulation is kept to a bare minimum, which leads to a more satisfying experience overall. Consider this the Dogma 95 version of Rain Man.

Much of the film transpires on the farm and illustrates how each of the characters fulfills a need in the others. In the end, they form an unlikely family unit. Secrets are peeled back as individuals come to terms with themselves and each other. These things are perhaps expected from a movie with this sort of story trajectory, but events don't always happen in the way we anticipate. And, although Mifune is a drama, it contains elements of comedy, some of which are decidedly bizarre (watch for the "revenge of the prostitutes" scene). The tone is also significantly lighter than that of the other Dogma 95 film American viewers may have seen (The Celebration), although to call the characters upbeat would be a stretch, especially when one describes her philosophy as: "Life is one large turd that you have to take a bite out of every day."

The acting is top notch. Iben Hjejle, who plays Liva, is luminous, and imparts to her character far more complexity than is typically found in the "prostitute with a heart of gold." (Hjejle, incidentally, will receive widespread North American exposure later this year when she stars opposite John Cusack in High Fidelity). Likewise, Anders W. Berthelsen brings depth to Kresten, a character who could easily be turned into a walking cliché by following the familiar arc of the redeemed self-centered jerk. Meanwhile, in Mifune's most visible performance, Jesper Asholt offers a quietly dignified portrayal of Rud.

Some have argued that the tenets embraced by Dogma 95 amount to little more than a marketing tool - an attempt by a group of underappreciated Danish directors to obtain wider distribution for low-budget motion pictures. And, while there may be some truth to those charges, there's no denying the artistic and entertainment value of a movie like Mifune. The key to applying Dogma 95 is to use it on the right films - movies centered on character development and relationship building which can benefit from being underproduced. Mifune, like The Celebration, is a perfect example, and, as long as the market isn't suddenly flooded by Dogma 95 candidates, these kinds of films offer an alternative to the styles we're used to.

Mifune (Denmark/Sweden, 1999)

Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: 2000-02-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Violence)
Subtitles: English subtitled Danish
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1